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Two hours. That’s the average amount of time a group of 1,319 subjects spent per day preparing their meals, according to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Preventative Medicine. Unsurprisingly, those people also had better overall dietary habits and consumed less fast food. The point: If you’re looking to feed your goals in the gym, prepping your own meals pays off—if you do it right.
While most of us don’t have two hours each day to spend getting meals together, there are ways to streamline the process. For help, we turned to a panel of meal-prep experts who shared their top tips.
“Take 10lbs of chicken breasts and stick them in a slow cooker with a little bit of broth and some salt and pepper. Then you just cook them—about eight hours on low—until they fall apart and can be easily shredded,” suggests Cassy Joy Garcia, the author of Fed & Fit. “You’ll have prepared shredded chicken that becomes a base protein for your meals for the week. You can stuff it into a potato, place it over rice, or make some tacos with it.” The meals don’t have to be the same.
Nowadays, frozen doesn’t mean unhealthy. Stock up on lean proteins, low-calorie meals (with ingredients you can pronounce), and frozen vegetables for when you’re in a pinch. “It’s always good to buy fresh,” Garcia says. “But it’s also good to have a backup.”
After a few days in the fridge, food can start to lose its appeal. Avoid dry proteins by relying on healthy varieties of sauces, such as tikka masala, curries, and tomato sauce. “There’s a lot of lemon juice and other things in the sauces that are going to just sit around the protein and the vegetable all at once, and that helps preserve the dish,” Garcia says. If you’d rather make a sauce for dipping or spreading, pro figure competitor Yanyah Milutinovic recommends making your own Greek yogurt–based sauces with different vegetables and herbs. “I’ll use it on sweet potatoes or meat,” she says. “It’s pretty low in calories, and it will make the food more delicious.”
“You could always get creative with [the meals you eat at home], like dinner and breakfast,” says IFBB pro bodybuilder Steve Kuclo. “But if you’re working nine to five, it’s easier if you simplify your meals and not have 10 different things.”
“I’m picky about the meat I buy, but at the same time, I want to save money,” Montgomery says. “Find sales, stock up, trim the meat with your shears, pre-portion it, and put it in baggies, then freeze.”
“You’ll save a lot of time if you manage to multitask while you cook,” Milutinovic says. “On the top of the stove, I will have my vegetables going at the same time that I cook my eggs. Meanwhile, my proteins are cooking in the oven.”
“Invest in a good set of Tupperware that locks right, so you don’t spill and smells stay in,” Milutinovic says. “Let’s say you have your gym clothes with you or your work clothes are in the same bag. You don’t want them to smell like fish.”